Prayer takes many forms. For some, it’s a quiet walk at the beach, sans iPod or cell phone. For others, it may be tending a vegetable garden expressly to donate to the food pantry. For still others, prayer takes place in synagogue, church, or mosque according to tradition.
Members of the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons will be praying in a new way during the upcoming High Holy Days. At services for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year and Yom Kippur, the solemn Day of Atonement, congregants will be using a new prayer book. “This is a very special year,” said Rabbi Jan Uhrbach, leader of the congregation since 1999. “It marks a new encounter.”
The new prayer book, called the Mahzor, meaning “whole heart,” was first published in May and has already been well received even though it won’t be put into practice until next week. “It’s not an overstatement to say the response has been overwhelming,” said Rabbi Uhrbach. The Mahzor has already sold 120,000 copies nationwide, and in her Sag Harbor congregation, nearly everyone wants one, she said. She’s seen “jaws drop and tears flow,” in response to the new book. Reactions have been “10 times beyond expectations.”
What’s so special about the new prayer book? Twelve years in the making, the book remains faithful to traditional Hebrew text yet includes contemporary commentaries, provides practical guides to service rituals, and reflects a broad range of life experiences. It grows from an effort to provide meaningful worship deeply rooted in ancient traditions yet still accessible to the 21st century congregant. The editorial committee, of which Rabbi Uhrbach was a part, assumed congregants would want to engage deeply and would want to be challenged, and that they don’t want “pabulum or Hallmark card religion,” she said. Nor is the book “funky New Age.”
Rabbi Uhrbach served on the committee for seven years. One of the reasons the book has been so well received, she believes, is that its creation was a truly holy process. The committee met monthly for twelve years, beginning each meeting with a prayer that they not be the cause of error. The editorial process was genuinely and deeply collaborative.
The fruits of that labor include traditional Yizkor memorial prayers that acknowledge contemporary life experiences. Prayers remember the lonely, or those struggling with depression, for example. The book includes readings on doubt and other theologically thorny issues. Writers like Abraham Heschel, Lawrence Kushner, Martin Buber, and Elie Wiesel, and poets Robert Alter, Yehuda Amichai, Marcia Falk and Stephen Mitchell are contributors.
“It was the experience of a lifetime,” said Rabbi Uhrbach of her committee work. “Senior editor Rabbi Edward Feld found a way to be faithful to tradition and still be relevant, inclusive, open and accepting,” she said; “to be rooted deeply in an ancient tradition, to love it deeply and at the same time be fully engaged in the moment one lives. That’s the task of religion,” she said.
“If we give people substance in a way they can engage with, people will want it,” she said of the concept behind the new prayer book. People don’t always know they’re searching for something deeper. “If you wait until you feel thirsty to drink water, you’re already dehydrated.”
Yet it’s not easy to bridge the distance between the ancient and the contemporary. “The sound bite and easy-fix culture has invaded the religious sphere and has done a disservice,” the rabbi said. People expect a lot without putting anything into it, but religion doesn’t work that way. “We hope to get away from the surface approach and address it in a more meaningful way, but that does require more effort.”
Rosh Hashanah services begin on Wednesday, September 8, at 6:30 p.m. and continue Thursday, September 9 and Friday, September 10, at 9 a.m. These services will be held at the Old Whalers’ Church sanctuary. Services for Yom Kippur will be held on Friday, September 17, at 6:35 p.m. and continue throughout the day on Saturday, September 18, beginning at 9 a.m. Yom Kippur services will be held at the St. Andrew’s Church social hall. For detailed information about services, call 725-8188 or visit synagoguehamptons.org.